Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Ciano: The five key factors that are rebuilding UMass hockey

From leadership to versatility, the Minutemen have found their groove
Jonathan Shi
Daily Collegian (2023)

The main message heading into the Massachusetts hockey team’s 2023-24 season was to play to its identity. Reflecting back on the first half of the Minutemen’s (11-5-1,4-3-1 Hockey East) season with the second half underway, it is clear that the rebuilding efforts coming off of the 2022-23 season have been strong, unwavering and stark.

And these efforts go well beyond the new roster additions. There are deep-rooted changes being made in the heart of the locker room that are translating onto the ice and into UMass’ record.

  1. Captaincy surpasses Aaron Bohlinger and Ryan Ufko.

While UMass is led by the senior and junior defensemen on the ice, leadership and the role of “captaincy” is a helmet being worn by players up and down the lineup. They all learn from each other, celebrate each other and push each other regardless of if there is a “C” embedded in their jersey.

Among the forwards, Lucas Mercuri has been a vocal and goal-scoring leader for the Minutemen. The junior has 13 points on five goals and eight assists over the course of the season. Leading the team in points comes from the defensive end with Scott Morrow, who has 20 points on five goals and 15 assists.

These veteran goal scorers never take full credit for their successes, instead the Minutemen are vocal about how their teammates make great plays on the ice. Whether it be a defenseman, forward, freshman or graduate, they are creating an environment where everyone can be heard and everyone’s strengths are showcased.

The confidence and pride they take in each other is coherent on the ice, and this is only possible through passing leadership throughout the lineup.

  1. Defensive offense is starting to match offensive defense.

A common pattern with the UMass defensemen is that they become accustomed to the program and eventually show up on the scoreboard. This happened when now-sophomore Owen Murray had his freshman breakout series against the University of Maine in his freshman year.

The well-rounded Ufko and Morrow defensive duo continue to emphasize their abilities as two-way players.

In the 2022-23 season, the role of a two-way player was almost exclusively in the hands of the defensemen. And while this season’s defense has not slowed down, the forwards are starting to speed up.

This started with the larger bodies on the ice: Mercuri, Lautenbach and Taylor Makar. The three juniors now use their speed and strength to their team’s advantage, not being afraid to check their opponents into the board or get gritty near the net.

Now, freshmen like Jack Musa, Aydar Suniev and Cam O’Neill are tapping into their aggression on the ice. It is no longer the responsibility of the top defenders or the bigger players or even the veterans to be a frightening force against UMass’ opponents.

  1. Versatility in the lineup highlights both individual and team strength.

Each week, the lineup features some sort of change whether it be a different extra skater or launching a new forward line. The more shocking lineup changes happened earlier in the season as the freshmen and graduate transfers adapted to the UMass program, such as Michael Cameron slotting into the top line with Mercuri and Lautenbach and testing out different pairings on the defensive end. Now, the Minutemen have succumbed to smaller edits, such as goaltender swaps, fourth line changes and extra skater revisions.

A team that can change its lineup so frequently is one that knows its individual players are reliable. And beyond the Minutemen as individuals, the team comradery on and off the ice is what makes these transitions on the lineup seamless – potentially even unnoticeable to fans.

When Musa slotted into the top line, second line and third line throughout the early beginnings of the season, his success on the ice never faltered. When junior forward Makar took his spot among the sophomores despite playing with Lautenbach and Mercuri for a majority of his UMass career, he adjusted accordingly and homed in on his strengths that match well with Kenny Connors and Cole O’Hara.

The ability to shift a lineup so frequently shows not only Carvel’s confidence in his team, but the confidence that the players have in themselves and each other. This is something that was not there last season.

  1. Goaltending is consistent.

Playing in the Hockey East conference, solid and consistent goaltending is a necessity. That is something UMass did not have last season.

No, the Minutemen do not have a single man in net every night. However, the shared spotlight between Michael Hrabal and Cole Brady is creating this consistency one way or another with the freshman at a .905 save percentage and the senior at a .895 save percentage.

The reason why sharing this starting spot is crucial is because neither goaltender is perfect, but they are both reliable. Brady reduces the impact of Hrabal’s errors and Hrabal kills the detriments of Brady’s. The two as a duo are working for the Minutemen.

Though Hrabal is leading the trio of goaltenders, including Jackson Irving, Brady is able to step into the net if the freshman is having a poor game.

Likewise, if the veteran is having trouble, the freshman is there to back him up. It is a healthy competition that is making both of them better in net, which was not the case last season. They are both fighting for the position by learning from each other and playing for each other.

  1. The locker room knows its identity.

This is arguably the most influential factor that has helped UMass excel and brush away its 2022-23 past.

In the face of deficits and even losses, the Minutemen do not give up on themselves. It may be the third period, the next night of the series, or a whole new weekend, and the players are there to win in one way or another. Last season, this was not the case. UMass would let one poor face-off battle or a one-point deficit determine its night and potentially the whole weekend.

The grit and determination of the 2023-24 team is finally brushing away the history of the 2022-23 season.

The energy is high, and it is radiating off of the bench. They are excited for each other and for the team. Playing with heart and confidence is what makes them succeed, and their errors and flaws are not killing their spirits. Each time they hit the ice they play like it is a new opportunity to win.

A common theme in UMass’ late-game wins is that the players during period intermissions never feel like they are on the losing end no matter what the scoreboard reads.

In the locker room, the Minutemen are always winning.

Sydney Ciano can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @SydneyCiano.

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